The Biggest Barrier Facing Women Running for President

It wasn’t just fundraising that caused Kamala Harris’s campaign to flounder.

As any Democrat knows, black women are the backbone of the party. It’s a ubiquitous fact in virtually all coverage of the 2020 presidential election.

Yet as of this writing, there are six candidates who qualify for December’s Democratic debate, and every single one of them is white. That’s because Senator Kamala Harris, once a top-tier candidate who would have qualified, dropped out Tuesday after it became clear that maintaining her campaign was no longer financially viable. Meanwhile, Senator Cory Booker, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang have yet to meet the next debate’s qualifications.

How is it that what was once the most diverse field of presidential candidates in American history has now become so racially monochrome? If nothing changes by December 19, when the candidates will take the stage in Los Angeles, Democrats will broadcast a message that they surely wouldn’t want to endorse—that they, like Republicans, remain a predominantly white party.

For starters, there continue to be several drivers behind this phenomenon during the 2020 election cycle, and none bode well for the party’s base. Money, racism, misogyny, sexism, and an elongated primary and debate season all play a role. But the biggest culprit is the white male-dominated media’s outsize influence on how the candidates are presented.

Television and print media play a tremendous role in how the public understands presidential hopefuls. It is the media, after all, that decides which candidates are worthy of coverage—and how much of it. That makes perfect sense, but once you peel back the onion, you recognize the greater problem: who exactly makes those decisions at the most powerful news organizations in the country.

Cable news channels like MSNBC and CNN have drastically upped their diversity efforts, and it shows. They should be lauded for those efforts—especially because most Americans, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, get their news through television. But the evening lineups largely consist of shows with male anchors. On MSNBC, the most-watched primetime slot belongs to Rachel Maddow. But look at the lineup for all the other hours: Chuck Todd, Ari Melber, Chris Matthews, Chris Hayes, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Brian Williams. Nicole Wallace has an afternoon slot. In other words, the bulk of MSNBC’s viewers in the evening hours get their news from a male perspective.

Similarly, CNN provides only one hour of female-led news with Erin Burnett, from 7 p.m. EST to 8 p.m. EST, while every hour is led by Jake Tapper, Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo, and Don Lemon.

Print media also holds a greater share of male influence. What do the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Politico, the Los Angeles Times, and, yes, even the Washington Monthly all have in common? They all have male editors-in-chief. USA Today is the only national newspaper that boasts a woman at the top of the masthead.

To be sure, MSNBC, CNN, and most print and digital media outlets do not solely cover politics and the election. And male views on political candidates are certainly critical to informing voters about those candidates’ policies, weaknesses, and assets. By no means must they be discarded. But the numbers don’t lie: men—and predominantly white men—hold the largest and loudest megaphones in political journalism.

This glaring disparity affects the political playing field, even if the most open-minded, inclusive men are in these roles. It means that most voters are told what a president should look like, sound like, prioritize, and value through the prism of a white male lens.

That’s not to say that white men in media don’t want, or even prefer, a female president or candidate of color. In fact, most men who practice opinion journalism favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, and Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. But it does mean that women or people of color running in a primary have to convince the white male media gatekeepers to let them through so that they can then reach voters.

As long as a white male-dominated media gets to decide who receives positive attention or criticism, or whom they will ignore, women and candidates of color will continue to pay a price. And that price, as we saw this week, is the steady erosion of campaign funding that comes with negative or dismissive media coverage. And when a candidate can’t raise money, she can’t pay for staff salaries or headquarters space, she can’t afford to travel around the country to make her case, she can’t pay pollsters and consultants, or buy TV or digital ads. Then, she drops out.

This problem is not insurmountable. We don’t need all female editors-in-chief to level the playing field. We don’t even need the majority of evening cable news shows to be hosted by women or people of color. But we do need more diverse and female voices on television and in print writing about and reporting on the candidates, unpacking them through the knowledge and insight they carry through their experience of being women and people of color in America.

Take, for example, Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post. She covers the 2020 candidates prolifically, with a critical eye for their strengths while thoughtfully discussing their weaknesses. She helps readers make sophisticated assessments about the field, rather than solely report on a campaign’s palace intrigue to generate clicks. Consequently, she is providing a service to all voters, whether male or female. Jonathan Capehart, a gay, African American opinion writer for the Post has a similar approach to the 2020 field.

As Democrats consider who is best to defeat Donald Trump, they should not limit their choices to candidate who is white enough and moderate enough to make only the male voters happy. And as they weigh their options, they need a more diverse array of journalists weighing in.

Black women are the backbone of the Democratic party—and women make up more than half of total voters, period. With all the power women have at the polls, it’s time to give them a louder megaphone.

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Julie Rodin Zebrak

Julie Rodin Zebrak is a veteran attorney with nearly 20 years of experience at the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Justice. She is the founder and CEO of Yes Moms Can and the co-founder of Mamas4Kamala.